the future of windows phone

A fascinating post and set of responses at thurott.com, Windows expert Paul Thurott’s online home. Subject: the new flagship Windows phones and Microsoft’s plan to push them out through friendly carriers and directly through the Microsoft store.

“Friendly carriers” appears to mean AT&T and maybe T-Mobile. It does not include Verizon, my phone company and the company generally believed to have the best coverage nationwide.

The whole thing, Paul’s post and the replies, is worth a read – the responses get deep into the complexities of Verizon’s network vs. the other guys, and of what’s really in the guts of the phones. But here’s the short version:

Those carriers that were friendly to Windows Phone—like AT&T in the United States, I was explicitly told—would continue to be offered the chance to sell Windows phones going forward. Those that were not—Verizon, again, explicitly—would not.

(I didn’t discuss T-Mobile or Sprint with Microsoft, but their fates are pretty clear: T-Mobile is on the friendly side, if not as friendly as AT&T, and Sprint is effectively dead.)

Additionally, I was told that Microsoft would sell all of its new phones directly to customers from its own retail and online stores. These phones would be carrier unlocked and would feature “universal” radios, meaning that they would work with (virtually) any carrier worldwide. The point behind this design decision is obvious enough, but it allows Microsoft to make one version of a phone, rather than multiple versions (like Lumia Icon and Lumia 930) that target different markets and/or carriers.

As Microsoft’s distribution plans for the Lumia 950 and 950 XL have become clearer this week, some people—like Peter Bright, not to single him out—have reacted negatively. But this is because they haven’t come to terms with what I wrote in July: Microsoft has conceded the smart phone market. There isn’t some secret super-push to get Windows phones into the hands of carriers, folks. Microsoft is simply doing what it has to do. It is selling phones via friendly carriers and via its own store. And that’s it.

As of today, you can buy three Windows phones through the Verizon store: the not-bad-at-all Lumia 735 and the dirt cheap LG Lancet have been there for a while, and I just noticed the HTC One M8 has returned. Of those three, only the 735 is a lock to get the coming Windows 10 update.

I understand why Microsoft might not want to do business with Verizon; Big Red’s CDMA calling technology is the odd man out for U.S. carriers, meaning that any phone running on Verizon’s network has to be made especially for Verizon. Plus, getting a phone – or a software update for a phone – certified is a study in frustration. And that’s just the obvious part; I have no idea what kind of deal Verizon drives with a company holding a weak market position.

Granted also that Verizon’s customers are all Android and iPhone customers, and I suppose you could argue that in the unlikely event WinPhones catch on Microsoft and Verizon could pick up again without much damage to anyone.

And the idea of the computer company being the primary conduit for phones – as Apple is doing – is intriguing: It’s more and more obvious that for many people, their phone is their main, if not their only, computer. It makes sense for that computer to come from the people who make the machines, and leave the connectivity up to the specialists.

But when I step back, I’m not sure what the point is, other than Microsoft keeping the Windows phone platform alive at some low level. And if that’s the case, as it surely is, what’s the path forward? I suspect Microsoft doesn’t know either, and just wants time to get its bearings. Microsoft has said it plans to concentrate in three areas, on people who want cheap phones, on enthusiasts and on business users. Maybe, but you could say almost the same thing about Android and iOS devices, so the “strategy” doesn’t tell us much.

I also don’t see the ability of some phones to morph into sorta-kinda desktops as much of a plus; it’s more like a party trick – “Look what I can do!” – in light of the fact that more and more productivity is migrating from desktop to mobile. (Yes, I know there’s a whole lot phones can’t do. I’m a laptop guy myself, but I have to acknowledge phones can be more than consumption devices these days.)

And Microsoft has been busy making sure the crown jewels, Outlook and the rest of Office, run at least as well on Android and iOS. So no advantage for Windows phone there either.

There’s some small hope, I think, in Windows 10 universal applications. If it doesn’t cost developers additional time and effort to build something for phone, maybe they will. But these things are never as seamless as they appear to be, so maybe not.

What’s left? Mostly loyalty. Windows phone users are a stubborn lot. Once you’re hooked on the interface, it’s hard to be satisfied with anything else – I know. I’m in month two of getting used to an Android phone and I have yet to make peace with it. However, there aren’t enough of us to give Windows phone the momentum it needs.

Maybe success is what some have suggested; Microsoft does really well in tablets and other mobile settings, so Windows phones become proportionately less important. The problem with that argument is that phones are by far the first among equals when it comes to mobile; nothing else does everything – makes calls, texts, and works as a pocket computer. And controlling the platform is, if not everything, a really important thing. Microsoft can do as well as it wants in Android and iOS, and still be at the mercy of others.

On top of everything else, the phone market strikes me as maturing. At this point, it’s hard to imagine disruptive change, the kind of thing that would level the playing field and give Microsoft another chance.

If I were given this problem to solve, I’m not sure what I’d do. If there was enough money, I think I’d draw up a list of whatever apps the platform needs and doesn’t have – or that aren’t good enough – and either hire developers or offer bounties to get WinPhone up to some sort of parity. I’m talking top 25 here, not deep catalog. I’d relentlessly winnow the app store; the last thing Microsoft should care about is being able to declare “We have XXXXXX apps!” given how awful so many are. I’d do some kind of research to figure out what company/institution-specific apps are most popular and offer to write them for free. Finally, I’d do for creative apps what Apple did for office applications on the Mac; I’d have an in-house team write and maintain a “best of breed” set of audio/video/photo apps.

I’d keep making good phones cheap, and push the price angle hard. At some point, people have to get that $800 is a lot to spend for a phone when you can get most/all of the value for a quarter of the price.

All of this is probably a recipe for pouring good money after bad, but if Microsoft wants to advance the platform I’m not sure what other choice it has. It can’t afford to lose more ground, it has no obvious path forward, and other than this brief respite, it can’t stand still. The next few months should be fascinating.

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